Disclosing the Ethnographic Self

Christine Lohmeier

Abstract


We are our own subjects. How our subjectivity becomes entangled in the lives of others is and has always been our topic. (Denzin 27)

This article reflects on the process of disclosing the ethnographic self, particularly in relation to the use of e-mails and social networking sites, such as Facebook. Previous work has examined virtual ethnography as the main research method or its place within a mixed method approach (Orgad; Hine, Virtual Ethnography; Fay; Greschke). My focus lies on the voluntary and involuntary intertwining of physical ethnographic work (i.e. going to a specific location to immerse oneself in a culture) and the virtual relations formed with informants in the course of such fieldwork. Connecting with informants on Facebook has brought a new dimension to the active approach of impression management that is encouraged in traditional texts on ethnography and participant observation (Hammersley and Atkinson; Taylor and Bogdan; Ellen). Examples are drawn from my experience of three phases of geographically located fieldwork for my thesis on Spanish- and English-language media and the Cuban-American community in Miami, Florida, and from online “repercussions” of my physical presence in the field.

In an ideal (research) world, the process of immersing oneself in a culture, studying and understanding its values, dynamics and symbolism is paired with professional and personal distance and reflexivity. Most of the time, the reality of fieldwork does not adhere to this ideal (Kleinman and Copp). Data collection does not take place in a void. On the contrary, it is a personal, emotional, embodied and challenging experience in which the researcher’s persona is highly involved: “If informants are people and have rights that affect ethical practice, ethnographers are also human and have identities that affect research practice” (Brewer 99).

The researcher’s identity has a strong influence on the research process, but the same holds true the other way around. Ethnographic encounters have an effect on the ethnographer’s sense of identity or sense of self. The researcher’s identity, just like the informant’s, is ever-changing and in a constant process of negotiation that continues throughout the ethnographic experience. As Sarah Pink (47) points out, individuals not only position themselves and their identity in relation to others, but also in relation to objects and discourses (see also: Miller).

Therefore the process of relating to the field does not end with physically removing oneself from it (Coffey). Dealing, relating and “coming to terms” with the field and those we encounter is much more complex. The assumption made that the researcher would not be influenced by this, meaning that the field has no impact whatsoever on the one collecting data, has been challenged severely, often by feminist scholars among others, over the past decades (Hey; Roberts; Berger).

Establishing and positioning oneself and one’s role in the field can be a daunting process (Lindner). It can be informed by fears of acceptance, uncertainties about conventions not (fully) understood yet and the underlying dynamics one still hopes to uncover. The process of role(s) and identity negotiation of the researcher in the field goes on when writing the field, going through field notes and making sense of what we have experienced (Okely). So even though strict temporal and spatial boundaries might never have existed to the extent ethnography textbooks would have us believe, the use of e-mails and social networking sites have brought the field even closer to home.

I have structured the following reflections on disclosing the ethnographic self in face-to-face conversations, that is, exposures made while being physically present in the field, and those taking place online. However, it is worth remembering that this is an artificial distinction as they are clearly interlinked and can overlap in time.

Disclosure in Face-to-Face Conversations

With establishing and negotiating one’s identity in the field and fieldwork relations comes the question of how much to disclose of oneself. How much should informants know about me? There are obvious ethical requirements:  Every researcher should be clear about scope and aim of the research project, institutional affiliations, the way data will be stored and used (Mauthner et al.). But beyond that, how much of myself do I have to expose? What stands in the way of a straight-forward answer is the undefined nature of relationships of those we meet in the field: “Fieldwork relationships are at once professional and personal, yet not necessarily readily characterized as either”(Coffey 39).

Arguably, there is not one right way to proceed, as it depends on the kind of field the researcher is finding herself in, her personality, role, identity and the type of relationship she wishes to establish with informants. The process of relationship-building to the field as a whole as constructed in the ethnographer’s mind and to individuals in the field is of course ongoing and very likely to evolve and change over time. This applies not only to the relationships built but also to the researcher’s sense of self and how he or she relates to those encountered in the field. It is partly in and through these encounters that the researcher’s understanding of self is influenced, shaped and negotiated on a continual basis.

During three phases of fieldwork in 2006, 2007 and 2008 I interviewed over 40 Hispanic journalists, media executives and active members of the Cuban-American community in Miami, Florida. How much was I willing to disclose of myself during these encounters and subsequent e-mail exchanges? Should I correct informants when they wrongly assumed I was British because I was based at a British institution? Do they need to know why I have chosen to research this particular topic and them as a group, why I was based at a Scottish university and what brought me to the U.K. in the first place? The answers were no secrets, but neither was I comfortable to share them with all informants I met in the field. Gender and age-related dynamics came into play here with the majority of interviewees being male and significantly older than me (Easterday). At times, I was uneasy when it came to talking about myself. While I defined the majority of my initial relations as mostly, though not entirely, professional, some interviewees did have a different take on this. In particular, I felt that one interviewee who after the interview started asking me personal questions about my move to Scotland, clearly overstepped an invisible line, although it would have been perfectly alright from my perspective to ask him questions similar, though different in tone, within the context of an interview.

A further aspect of disclosure within the context of ethnographic work is the open discussion of the research process with informants. Although this can be very fruitful, it can also be source of scorn and end in closed doors, especially in the highly polarised field I was researching: Once interviews were finished, some interviewees would ask whom I had interviewed previously—maybe just out of interest, maybe to go on and suggest future interviewees. I had never considered in detail what kind of reactions interviewees might have by my naming of previous contacts because for one, reactions had so far been positive and secondly, all interviewees had some understanding of what research entails and that I would naturally want to speak to as many people and as many “sides” as possible. In one particular case, though, the interviewee showed clear disapproval of my talking to a journalist at a well-known Miami-based newspaper. At the time, I did not take this minor condemnation very seriously, but in retrospect it turned out that this interviewee could have been a valuable source for further information and contacts. It taught me that it is wise to hold my cards closer to my chest in such a sensitive environment. This does not mean, however, that secrecy and constant striving towards a neutral position is always the best way to proceed,  nor a believable position to hold as Kloos (511) found out: “One of the clergymen in Eastern Flevoland asked me once: ‘Do you have any opinions of your own?’”

Virtual Exposure and Disclosure

Previous studies underlined that relationships forged and maintained online mirror offline everyday-life contacts, interests, concerns and vice versa. (Castells; Miller and Slater) For ethnographers whose informants have ready Internet access, this can bring significant advantages as well as challenges.

Contacting informants whom I had heard about but not yet met in person by e-mail proved an extremely useful approach. An e-mail allowed me to say a few words about myself and introduce my research project. If there was no response to the e-mail, I was much more comfortable to call the person at this stage—rather than before an e-mail had been sent. E-mails proved a very successful way in contacting informants, thanking people after the interview and exchanging further information that had been touched upon in conversation. What surprised me, however, was that e-mails were also used by interviewees to contact me months after I had been in touch with them and had physically left the field. On a couple of occasions, interviewees sent me information that they thought was essential for my research or, in fact, asked me to fill out a questionnaire and comment on matters relating to my research topic. My role in the field and my relation to informants had turned from researcher to research participant, or interviewee in this case.

While e-mails offer a rather controlled environment when approaching informants, other information about the researcher might be more unpredictable and harder to control or manage. I sometimes found myself wondering what information about me informants would find when they Googled my name. How would they combine and make sense of their offline construction of me as a researcher with my virtual persona? And to which extent is impression management in the context of social networking sites feasible and perhaps to be recommended?

Of course these questions do not solely apply in a research context. However, it is worth considering them in an effort of understanding the dynamics which underlie the research process. Even though my research methodology included an online component, such as the monitoring of selected blogs and discussion forums, the majority of the data was gathered in clearly defined periods of physical ethnographic work. The relationship that evolved via e-mails and on Facebook outside of fieldwork phases were initiated by informants. I could obviously have ignored these contacts, however, as someone involved in media research I thought it strange and discourteous not to respond or accept informants as “Friends,” while seeking them out offline.

Disclosing (personal) information on Facebook can become a risky business due to the diverse relationship of the people merged through Facebook’s list of “Friends.” Facebook does not force users to define or distinguish between different types of relationships. In my role as a researcher, I have always been highly uneasy to put on detailed information about “What’s on my Mind,” the facility Facebook offers for bringing others up to date on what is happening in one’s life. Reporting to my “Friends,” including informants, that most of my time was spent struggling with the data I had gathered in the field, could undermine their view of me as a researcher and a person worth talking to. Apart from that, there were obvious faux-pas that I needed to avoid online. Joining a Ernesto “Che” Guevara Fan group—like wearing a ‘Che’ T-shirt or pin – is not a smart move when trying to build a relationship with Cuban exiles. But even expressing fairly main-stream political opinion did not seem a good idea. Without being aware of it at the time, I was trying to perform a “stable research self,” as opposed to a fragmented, continuously changing and relationally constructed one. Following Geertz’s line of thought, I furthermore hoped that “the natives” had a similar perspective to mine and would perceive me as the balanced, neutral researcher that I was trying to be (Geertz).

Arguably, Facebook allows for personal information and entries to be hidden from some contacts. It gives users the option to group contacts, thereby specifying who gets to see what kind of information. However, all contacts can see all contacts, to allow for networking to take place. Given the politically-charged and polarised nature of the community I was researching—and keeping in mind the incident recounted above, with one informant disapproving of me talking to a certain journalist and subsequently breaking up all communication—being connected with some people can have unwelcome side-effects for the research process.

Personal and intercultural variations when reading and making sense of social networking sites are a further aspect worth noting in this context. Dalsgaard (10-12) underlines the hierarchical nature which characterises the practical use of the Internet and often mirrors offline power constellations. Unlike earlier celebration of the horizontal communication devoid of power structures, Internet interaction reproduces and adds further stratifications and “forms of ranking—some hierarchical, some not”. This also holds true for the number of contacts on a social networking site:

Networks consist of nodes, and in the ‘Facebook society’, every person is a node. But there are differences between nodes. Some are more central than others and function as the hub for many more transactions. Some may only have ten ‘connections’ or ‘friends’, while others may have several hundreds – notwithstanding that there is qualitative difference between relationships, that not all relationships are personal, that many ‘friends’ are perhaps what we would normally call acquaintances and so on. (Dalsgaard 10)

Drawing on Goffman, Dalsgaard (12) argues that popularity on social networking sites, has a symbolic or performance-orientated character, as it can be safely assumed that not every contact is “an important relationship built on long-term mutual exchange of greetings, gifts, favours, opinions and so on.”

Even the number of friends and contacts can be understood as disclosing something about ourselves. How many people from the field and from outside the field are on my list of contacts? Who is there and who is not? Which relations are not included, pursued online, kept secret or ignored? Concerns of how individual informants would read my Facebook profile have left me feeling uneasy while keeping my activities to a minimum.

However, secrecy, inactivity—which is in a way an attempt of the impossible act of non-performance or disappearance, can be just as harmful as disclosure. During the time of research I kept wondering whether someone working towards a doctorate in communication studies should know how to “work” Facebook. My wariness of disclosing too much of myself, aspects of my identity that would threaten my performance as a “stable researcher self,” held other parts of my fragmented identity captive and disclosed. In a way, I was happy with the relational construction of myself as the doctoral researcher in face-to-face encounters, but online encounters, not initiated by myself, had a different quality to them. They led me to struggle with the authentic, stable and singular self that Facebook encourages people to present to the outside world.

Concluding Remarks

Managing and handling acts of disclosure in geographically located fieldwork has been explored in great depth in recent scholarship. Voluntary and involuntary disclosure of the researcher’s fragmented identity in the context of social networking sites is a new phenomenon, and an unexpected challenge for those who did not see virtual ethnography as part of their main methodology. Similar to the fading dichotomy of public/private, e-mails and social networking sites have torn down the temporal and spatial boundaries fieldwork and the performance of the ethnographic self has been associated with. For the researcher who is connected with informants on Facebook, or other social networking sites, this can mean an ongoing performance of the researcher’s role; a continuous relating and positioning to those encountered in the field. This process might fade out with the end of a project, turning the informant into an acquaintance, friend or someone who happens to be our “Friend” on Facebook but has little further impact on our life and sense of self. When researching a group of people with ready access to digital media, virtual ethnography should possibly be part of the mix from the start. Hine (Virtual Methods 8) has pointed out that defining what exactly ethnography entails is problematic in itself. Immersing oneself in the field can take many different forms. Ethnography as a method is flexible enough to encompass encountering informants on social networking sites. In itself, it is worth noting who is online, who is not and what kind of interaction the informant is looking for.

However, gathering this type of information raises ethical questions about the research process. In my case, geographically located field work was considered and approved by the university’s ethics committee, but online encounters—outside the chosen methodology—were not covered. Dealings with research participants were therefore institutionally endorsed within temporal and spatial limits and this indisputably contributed to my sense of a professional research self. Being contacted by informants on a social networking site, significantly challenges this framework and clouds the terms of reference. Whose rules apply? Or are there no rules? Observing participants’ profiles as an add-on to previously collected data, though tempting it may be, seems not a good option. But then informants might monitor the researcher’s profile for their own purposes, be it general curiosity, entertainment, or simply an enjoyable free-time activity. Once again, traditional roles of researcher and researched are easily reversed in the online encounter. For the time being, ethical guidelines generally assume a situation in which the researcher in some form is seeking out the researched, not the other way around. With the proliferation of social networking sites and online encounters, standard institutional ethical protocols fall short here.

Nonetheless, online encounters between researcher and researched also bear potential.  Asymmetric power structures can shift with the informant being able to contact, construct the researcher and disclose aspects of the researcher’s identity, or rather online persona, on their own terms and in a less controlled environment. As the incidence recounted above shows, this can entail a role reversal which blurs the lines between researcher and researched and underlines the performative and relational aspect of self. Furthermore, this indicates a much more flexible approach to roles of the researcher and informant which allow for mutual disclosing and exchanging—if both parties are willing to let this happen. On the other hand, this potential shift in power does not absolve the researcher from the responsibility inherent in the research process. As with other aspects of ethnographic work, “there can be no set formulae, only broad guidelines, sensitive to specific cases” (Okely 32). The unexplored terrain and ongoing experimentation of integrating social networking sites into everyday life call for a heightened sense of reflexivity and ethical awareness in the research process.

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Acknowledgements

I would like to thank my supervisors Prof. Philip Schlesinger, Prof. Raymond Boyle and Dr. Myra Macdonald for their advice throughout this project. My gratitude also to the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland for funding fieldwork in 2007 and 2008. Finally, a big thank you to the editors and reviewers of M/C Journal for their insightful comments.


Keywords


ethnography; Facebook; disclosure; identity; research method



Copyright (c) 2009 Christine Lohmeier

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